Four people were killed and seven wounded on Friday, January 22, in shootings at two locations in the remote northern town of La Loche, Saskatchewan. The 17-year-old male suspect charged in relation to one of the deadliest school shootings in Canadian history is said by family members, friends and classmates to have been the victim of severe bullying. As the case unfolds, politicians and pundits will no doubt harp on favoured themes such as gun control, the need for mental health services and anti-bullying initiatives. While there is an element of truth to many of these concerns, the larger social context for the shootings, resulting from both the legacy of colonialism and the damaging effects of modern Canadian capitalism, must not go overlooked.
Among the victims in the shootings were two people killed at La Loche Community School – Adam Wood, 35, a teacher who had recently moved to La Loche from Ontario, and educational assistant Marie Janvier, 21. Two brothers, Drayden and Dayne Fontaine, aged 13 and 17 respectively, were also killed at a home near the school. The teen suspect in the shootings has been charged with four counts of first degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm.
A small village in northern Saskatchewan located approximately 500 km northeast of the city of Prince Albert, La Loche has a predominantly Dene population of about 3,000 people. Articles in both The New York Times and National Post following the shootings have documented the widespread despair and lack of opportunity–particularly for youth–that characterize the town. La Loche has been noted for its high unemployment and significant drug and alcohol abuse. There are no family restaurants, hotels, movie theatres, recreation facilities or even banks in La Loche, and even the nearest Tim Horton’s is 100 km away. There are, however, two bars and a liquor store on the main thoroughfare, where people can be seen consuming alcohol in public from morning onwards. The National Post in its coverage dubbed La Loche "the town without hope."
The traditional lifestyle of the Dene involved living off the land by hunting and trapping, but the combined effects of colonialism and encroaching capitalism have shattered those established ways of life. Most of the adults in the area are survivors of the Indian residential school system, which has been described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as an attempted "cultural genocide" whose traumatic effects continue to make themselves felt through widespread social dysfunction in Indigenous communities. Many adults, crippled by alcoholism, survive on public assistance and do not tend to rely on their traditional skills—skills which young people also largely do not possess.
Youth in the area have few job opportunities, with employment mostly limited to the handful of small area businesses or publicly funded positions in clinics, governments or schools. The problem is severely exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure, common among Indigenous communities in Canada where basic needs go ignored by the federal government. Despite the proximity of La Loche to Fort McMurray, Alberta, which offered significant employment opportunities before the recent drop in oil prices, the lack of roads other than a very rough ice road in winter prevented most La Loche residents from gaining jobs there.
Tragically, the frustrations of young people who can find no future in La Loche have often exploded into violence that can be directed either outward or inward, with the latter reflected in a rash of youth suicides. The Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority, which includes La Loche along with neighbouring northwestern communities, has the highest annual suicide rate of any health authority in Saskatchewan, averaging 43.4 deaths from suicide from 2008 to 2012, more than triple the provincial rate.
In such a context bereft of hope, volatile emotions can easily be channelled into destructive rage. The accused in the La Loche shootings is said to have been the frequent victim of bullying, taunted in particular for his relatively large ears. La Loche resident Perry Herman, who knew the family of the accused, commented to the National Post, "He was a normal boy. He was not a monster. He was hurting."
Mass shootings are often seen as primarily a phenomenon in the United States, where relatively lax gun control laws serve as a convenient scapegoat for liberal politicians. However, as observed in a 2012 Socialist Appeal article, the publication of the U.S. section of the International Marxist Tendency, following the shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut: “Regardless of what the gun laws are, people who want firearms can acquire them—by illegal means if necessary. And if guns are unavailable, other weapons can be used to wreak havoc on society. Just hours before the shooting in Connecticut, there was a knife attack at a secondary school in China (where private gun ownership is outlawed), where 23, including many children, were wounded.”
The lack of adequate psychiatric and mental health services, particularly in isolated northern communities such as La Loche, has correctly been identified by commentators as a contributing factor in mass shootings. Here the effects of capitalist austerity, documented regularly by Fightback, have produced the most deadly consequences, with even the National Post acknowledging in its January 25 analysis that the relentless bullying of the accused was "made worse, perhaps, by recent cuts to the school and mental health supports available to residents in this remote community on the eastern shore of Lac La Loche."
Words from political leaders on needed reforms mean little when a capitalist system burdened by debt is unable to offer anything but austerity and counter-reforms, according to its own internal logic. With available social services only to face more ruthless cuts in the future, individuals suffering from mental health issues will remain largely left to their own devices.
In a domestic and international context where the ruling class unhesitatingly resorts to violence to maintain its own power, and where a profit-driven media promises instant celebrity to social misfits who direct their rage at innocent bystanders, the phenomenon of mass shootings will only continue. Only through a more humane system, socialism—built on interpersonal solidarity and dedicated to the fulfillment of everyone’s mental, physical and social needs—will such tragedies begin to recede once and for all into the dustbin of history.